There's a lot of under-appreciated (and occasionally misunderstood) people, places and inanimate objects out there. With these articles - we like to reset the balance a bit.
This time around, Modernist man Eddy Rhead lavishes praise on hit-making rail-fan Pete Waterman...
Pete Waterman is an opinionated man, and like most opinionated people, he tends to draw strong opinions from other people. The general consensus is that he’s an arrogant, slightly boorish wide boy chancer who churned out a load of unlistenable, annoying pop music and spent all his fortune on train sets. Some of that may be true, but I’m going to make the argument that he is one of the most important people in British popular music — a very talented and underrated song writer and producer and, despite appearances, a pretty decent fella.
There is no one who loves Pete Waterman more than Pete Waterman. Some of his claims need to be treated with, at best, scepticism, but Pete Waterman didn’t sell millions of records by being humble, and despite some of his more wild claims he does seem to factor in many pivotal and prescient moments in British pop music.
Above all Pete Waterman has a deep and knowledgeable love of music — especially black American dance music. He quite famously compared his output with Mike Stock and Matt Aitken (a.k.a. Stock, Aitken and Waterman a.k.a. The Hit Factory) as that of Berry Gordy and the Motown record label. He built this comparison on his love for the Tamla Motown sound and work ethos – finding young raw talent, teaming them with prolific and talented songwriters, dictating their style and image, and churning out an endless stream of three minute pop songs in the vain hope some will be hits.
This comparison only stretches to the production line methods, and falls apart because Motown produced a huge amount of talented artists who went on to mature and prosper, whilst the Stock Aitken and Waterman roster had no shelf life. Still, the Motown comparison is worth noting because it shows Waterman’s dedication to soul music, built up from his time in the 1960s and 70s as a DJ and record shop owner in his native Coventry.
Waterman, who could not read or write until his thirties, started working on the railways at the age of 15. He left the railways in the mid-60s for factory work and started playing in bands and DJing to supplement his income. He established himself as Coventry’s top soul DJ and eventually opened his own shop, the Soul Hole in the early 70’s.
It was here the likes of Jerry Dammers and members of The Specials would buy their soul, ska and reggae records (Waterman would eventually go on to manage The Specials). Quite bizarrely, after a stint as an A&R man in the late 1970s he quit the music industry and went to work in a coal mine. Proper grafter is our Pete.
He eventually returned to the music industry in the early 80s and latched on to an emerging sound from the underground gay scene - the electronic, syncopated offspring of disco - Boystown a.k.a. Hi-Energy. With an intuition of what sounds good on the dance floor Waterman took the Hi-Energy sound and took it mainstream, producing, along with his new partners Stock and Aitken, hits for Divine, Hazel Dean and Dead or Alive.
It could be argued that Hi-Energy was the musical and cultural bridge between disco and house and in the mid-80s there was certainly some crossover — Pete Waterman was right at the heart of it. He would take elements of what he knew worked on underground dance floors and adapt them for pop acts, something that would prove to be his greatest skill and that would make him his fortune.
"If Bill Drummond agrees with me that Waterman is a genius then I’m not going argue with him."
One person who had heard and admired Dead or Alive's hit ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’ was Bill Drummond, who, at the time, thought it one of the greatest records ever made. Bill Drummond went on to form The KLF and in his book/manifesto The 17 he has a chapter called ‘Pete Waterman – The Genius’. Read it here. If Bill Drummond agrees with me that Waterman is a genius then I’m not going argue with him. Drummond insists that how The KLF went about making records and then how those records were marketed owes a debt to Waterman, and The KLF later paid homage to Waterman by recording a single ‘Kylie Said to Jason’.
So Waterman has helped the Two Tone sound and The Specials, taken underground gay dance music mainstream and been instrumental in the forming of The KLF. What next?
Well, of course — we enter the peak of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman era. The formative sound was a nod/rip off to the Minneapolis sound of Jam and Lewis. Listen to ‘Say I’m Your Number One’ by Princess from 1985, a great tune in its own right but clearly an attempt to emulate Janet Jackson, and check ‘It’s a Man’s World’ by Brilliant (whose members included the other half of the KLF, Jimmy Cauty and Youth, later of The Orb) which lifted the rhythm track from ‘Change of Heart’ from Change.
Stock, Aitken and Waterman's stock in trade then became non-offensive, white, youthful, sexless performers (preferably Australian former soap stars), churning out a seemingly endless supply of simple, accessible pop tunes. I shall concede much of it was absolute garbage, but I’m a sucker for a key change and SAW definitely knew a good key change – the chorus of ‘Especially For You’ by Kyle and Jason for example — and try telling me ‘This Time I Know it’s For Real’ by Donna Summer isn't a brilliant record? Go on. I dare you.
I also don't have to tell you what a finely crafted pop record ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by Rick Astley is (even though it’s a blatant rip of the proto-house record 'Trapped' by Colonel Abrams). ‘What Do I Have to Do’ by Kylie got dropped at the Haçienda once. I know because I was there. When the vocal came in there was a moment’s hesitation and some puzzled looks, but by the time the chorus came everyone was on board with it and recognised it for the tune it is.
"Pete got house, but perhaps house didn't get Pete."
And whilst we are talking about the Haçienda – how can we ignore The Hitman and Her – Waterman's bizarre late night TV show which was a weekly tour of Grab-A Granny northern clubs where Waterman would sneak underground house tracks in between cheesy Euro pop dance? Waterman gave off the impression of being a slightly buffoonish character – looking like he was a dad come to pick his daughter, played by pre-Spring Watch Michaela Strachan, from the club – but he knew exactly what he was doing.
Once again he was instrumental in introducing underground dance music on an unsuspecting public. Pete got house, but perhaps house didn't get Pete. The Hitman and Her's visit to The Hacienda has gone down in clubbing mythology – for all the wrong reasons. I’m saying nothing. Google it.
Other highlights? The time he showed up the London rare groove scene by releasing ‘Roadblock’ as a white label, watching as chin stroking DJs lapped it up and then denying all knowledge once SAW revealed it as their own. Or that one of his productions, ‘I Can’t Wait’ by Mandy Smith is considered one of the original Balearic anthems.
Or when he sold his model railway, the largest privately owned collection in the world, to finance his full size heritage railway, and upon discovering there was a lack of people with the skills to restore his trains, and a lack of interest from the government, paid for an apprenticeship scheme himself to train young people to acquire those skills.
He may have come to encapsulate the shallow, money driven, ‘pile them high sell it cheap’ Thatcherite era, but looking back on what he has achieved in his career I am definitely of the opinion that Pete Waterman is a bona-fide National Treasure and we should celebrate him as such.